Saturday, October 29, 2011

A Girl’s Guide to Choosing an RV– my story

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Meeting Suzanne at the Hershey RV Show last month reminded me of just what an overwhelmingly difficult process it is to determine which RV is “the right one” to dump much of your life’s savings into.  One of the salesmen told her that 90% of all 1st-time RV buyers end up with a different RV within 3 years.  Unfortunately, he’s likely pretty correct.

It’s rarely possible to take a potential RV out for a few nights to “test it out” before buying, so unless a similar model is available as a rental, one usually must buy their RV without sleeping or living in it first, and without much of a test drive.

I’ve certainly been one of the salesman’s statistics.  In 2004, after a summer of cold and rainy tent camping in Canada, I decided to buy my first RV.   Meet my 1st RV-- a Starcraft 2406 pop-up tent camper!

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It was relatively inexpensive (under $10,000 new), was lightweight enough for my SUV to tow, and could sleep up to 6 people so I could bring lots of friends or family along.  I loved the openness and all-around views it provided:
831601328_3f6ab34827_o and loved the idea of having my own toilet/shower combo without having to be near a bathhouse.
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The first few trips with the new pop-up were great, but I soon began feeling like it wasn’t right for me.  All the setup and tear down took a lot of time (and was miserable to do in the rain), there was very little storage available when it was in travel mode (and no way to access the fridge or bath when the roof was down).  

You also had to take your shoes off every time you used the toilet unless you wanted mud and scratches on the wet bath floor. The 20 gallon water tank (and no built-in gray tank), meant that using the shower was cumbersome (and insufficient if more than 1 or 2 people were needing it over the weekend).  Towing was also not a very pleasurable experience—the camper swayed excessively if I ever drove above 60 mph, and my electric brake controller would either brake way too much or way too little. 

Finally, it was not an ideal RV for the colder climates I liked to camp in—true, it was warmer than a tent, but if the outside temps dropped below 50F, the furnace had to cycle on/off almost constantly all night long to attempt to keep warm air inside the drafty tent walls.  Friends and family came along for a couple of trips, but it was usually just me camping in it, so it also felt bit too big for just me.

But the deciding factor to trade it came one night while camping in a rather deserted campground in rural Kentucky. A group of hunters had gotten lost in the night and nearly walked right into my camper!  It was an innocent mistake on their part, but the experience scared me half to death (imagine being awakened in the middle of the night to sounds of men and dogs, and seeing flashlights and gun barrels coming towards my bed…the only thing protecting me was the flimsy canvas and vinyl window, and a small steak knife I’d managed to pull out of the drawer when I hopped down onto the floor!). 

After that experience, I decided that I wanted and needed a hard-sided trailer with a door that could lock (not only more peace of mind from lost hunters in the night, but better for camping in bear country where pop-ups were prohibited).  But I still wanted something that could still be towable by my SUV, and something that could be expandable when I wished to bring guests along. 

My dealer had just started carrying a line of super-cute teardrop trailers called the T@B, and I instantly fell in love with a T16Q model that my dealer gladly let me trade my pop-up for a few thousand dollars more.n_a

The T@B had a combination dinette/bed with a kitchen, large flip-out windows on 3 sides that provided great views of the outdoors, a porta-potti, and an air conditioner.  It also had a terrific screen room tent attachment that could double the living space when needed for extra guests.  It towed like a dream compared to the pop-up, and best of all, seemed to attract smiling, curious “T@B Gawkers” where ever we went!

As a weekend camper, it was a wonderful RV.  I also loved the active owner community and met many folks at T@B rallies who continue to be good friends.  When my first T@B was destroyed while being transported by a trucking firm cross-country in 2007, I replaced it with another nearly-identical unit and took many more great road trips around the country (see my T@B blog for chronicles of those adventures).
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With improved 3G cellular service and campground wi-fi,  I began working from the road during extended month-long T@B trips around the country.  It was thrilling and liberating to be so mobile, and by 2009, I wanted to take even longer trips, and even try snowbirding all winter away from snowy Chicago.  Only one problem-- the T@B was just not going to be comfortable or big enough for that long of a time period, and without a full bath and larger holding tanks, I’d be limited to just camping in RV parks with bathhouses. So I had a big expensive decision to make—get a motorhome, or trade my Subaru in for a pickup truck and buy a bigger trailer.

Of course you know which way I went on that decision!
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I had narrowed down my choices to a small motorhome or an Airstream trailer.  I didn’t want a traditional “rectangular boxy RV” and wanted something as stylish as the T@B’s interior.  I wanted something small enough to get into most campgrounds, but bigger and more comfortable than the T@B.  Most importantly, I wanted a real bathroom with shower and large enough holding tanks to be useful.

I decided that, as neat as the Airstreams looked, I just didn’t want to have trade my car in for a big truck to pull one.  I also didn’t want to struggle with towing and constant hitching/unhitching.  So, I began focusing in on motorhomes. 

In 2005, I had a wonderful week in Alaska renting a 25’ Class C motorhome from Great Alaskan Holidays.  It was quite a luxury from my pop-up tent camper, not only for the onboard generator, but the ease of having an instant climate-controlled rest stop or diner whenever I happened to pull off the side of the road (bathrooms and restaurants in Alaska are far and few between!).  I also loved being able to just drive right into a campsite, turn off the engine, open the door and be camping within 2 minutes…I could definitely get used to this!

I attended a few RV shows and visited a number of dealers.  Class B van motorhomes looked the least intimidating, were certainly easy to drive and got great gas mileage.  But the interiors, to me, felt even smaller and more cramped than my 12’ T@B!  Most had tiny fridges and tiny holding tanks too, which would mean more trips to the grocery store and dump station—2 tasks I do not enjoy.  Finally, most new Class B vans were more expensive than any Class C I looked at, so that ruled them out for me. 

On the flip-side thought, Class Bs did seem to be the safest of all motorhomes though as they were built as strongly as a passenger van. Also, if I were focused on “stealth urban camping,” a Class B van would be at the top of the list as it most easily blends in well with other vehicles in any parking lot or residential street.

Class A motorhomes (the big rectangular boxes on wheels) or a Conversion Bus might one day be in my future as a full-time rig, but they just seemed was too big a leap and too cavernous to migrate to from my tiny, cozy T@B.  These units certainly had all the comforts of home though, and tons of storage and holding tank capacity.

Finally, I focused in on 2 class C’s—the Winnebago View and the Winnebago Aspect.  Both had different pros and cons, but either really could have worked.  The Aspect was on a Ford gas engine chassis and had a bedroom in back but no cabover bed up front.  The View had just the opposite and was on a shorter, narrower, Mercedes diesel chassis.  In the end, I chose my View because it was a new prior-year model that was $20K cheaper than current-year Aspects, and had more external storage space than an Aspect.

I’ve now owned and lived in my View longer than any of my previous RVs.  Is it perfect?  No.  I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that after a few months on the road, I really do look forward to returning home to my real mattress bed, comfy recliner and sofa, big screen TV and fireplace.  But for the “part-time full-timing” solo RVing trips I do right now, the View is about as close to perfect as I can get. 

The ultimate “work from the road” benefit to a small motorhome versus a trailer, is the fact that I can easily move it.  The best/fastest internet and cellular coverage is often closest to highways and towns, while the best campsites are at least a few miles away in the boonies.  It’s nice to be able to work in town during the day, and then retreat back to a pretty site in the woods or on a lake when the day is done.  It’s also nice to be able to easily  drive to a dump station when holding tanks are full rather than have to deal with portable “blue boy” tanks or being restricted to only full hookup sites.

At 24 feet, the View has yet to find a camp site it could not fit into, and the narrow width and short wheelbase has been a blessing on every curvy mountain road, u-turn, or construction zone I’ve ever had to drive. 

Is it a full-time home?  My jury is still out about that one.  It certainly is plenty comfortable for 1 or 2 people for a few months on the road, and I’ve read about a few dozen people who do indeed live full-time in their Views (i.e. no longer own permanent homes).  But they either have had to make significant compromises in what they could bring along (due to limited 1,000 lb cargo carrying capacity), or have still had some kind of storage unit or park model trailer keeping all their comfy stuff and heirlooms for post-fulltiming.

As a solo RVer who still has a home base to return to, a small motorhome has been the most-perfect RV for me at this stage of my life….now if I could just get Millie to relax and enjoy the ride.  The sofa is too bouncy to sleep on when rolling down the highway, and it’s hard for a dog to get her beauty rest!

15 comments:

  1. Before we bought our View we were on the fence quite a while between it and the Aspect. Looking back we made the right decision hands down. The picture of your red T@B in Utah(?) is so pretty.

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  2. Another great post, Lynne! I really appreciate your sharing your knowledge. It has been so helpful to me as I navigate through the decision process.

    I saw a View traveling through the Smoky Mountain NP this weekend, and I craned my neck as far as it would go until it was out of sight. My heart flutters whenever I see one, so it must be love. haha!!

    Thanks again!

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  3. I love your View!! I think it's a perfect size. As someone who will always have a home base the 20' - 24' rig is just what we're looking for.
    Cheers! ~M

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  4. I didn't realize you started out with a pop-up! You have moved thru' the various stages and the T@Bs were great, but the View is much better for you and Millie! Glad you're still enjoying it, with maybe a Class A in your future! judi

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  5. As someone who is currently going through the insane process of deciding what to buy, this post was really helpful. I have a Toyota 4Runner V8 that I had thought about using to tow a trailer but I have almost tossed that idea out. I have a 78 lb dog but it's a bloodhound, plus 2 basset hounds...all love to travel and all are coming with me when I leave.

    I guess "they" might be the decision makers in my RV purchase.

    Great looking blog, by the titles of your posts it looks like I can get some great information here. Great photographs.

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  6. Thank you for all the information in your "Girls Guide. . ." My hunny and I are trying to glean as much as we can before we take off on a great trip in two years. Haven't bought the trailer we want yet but we are searching and your entire guide has given us so much to consider. All points were looked at and notes taken. Thanks for the clear information.

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  7. That red T@B is quite a looker. I am not surprised that it attracts smiling and curious glances wherever it goes. Anyway, living full-time in a motorhome is a pretty huge decision. I hope you consider all your options first before making any final decisions.

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  8. Aww. I also love the T16Q model you got, but I can already tell that the space is not enough for someone who has a lot of work to do all the time. Well, I think the motorhome is quite perfect – the size, the interior – it’s just the right choice for you. It has everything you need in a nutshell, and that’s what living on the road is all about.

    Tia Oshields

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  9. Looks can be deceiving! T@b may look small, but it can still provide the same comfort and convenience like other motor homes do. It’s undoubtedly a good investment, but before investing in one, consider first your finances and as well as your needs and demands. Weigh things carefully before deciding.

    -Rosalinda Rudloff

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  10. Your T@B RV is cute and tidy! How long have you been using this, Lynne? I agree with Rosalinda about this quote, “Looks can be deceiving.” It might be small but look at the inside and you’ll be amazed! You can tell that to your curious acquaintances there. Hehe.

    Tobias Thrash

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  11. I enjoyed my 2 T@Bs (and continue to enjoy the many friendships I made with other T@B-owners and T@B-lovers-- greatest bunch of like-minded folks I've ever met!). But, my camping needs evolved over the years, and as cute as the little T@Bs were, they were no fun to live in for 3 or 4 months straight, especially if wanting to do more boondock camping away from all the conveniences of an RV Park or needing to work indoors comfortably for days/weeks at a time. So, my Winnie View has been a much better solution for that. But I still carry a cute little toy T@B trailer in my View, so I suppose you could say I still camp with a T@B!

    http://tabventures.blogspot.com/2011/06/off-to-greener-pastures.html

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  12. I’m sure “Millie” will have her much needed beauty rest once she gets used to your RV! And I hear you. Choosing an RV, especially if you plan on traveling solo, can be a challenge. You have to find a motorhome that you would feel comfortable in, and at the same time will give good road performance. Doing some research on the types of RV can definitely help narrow the search. But I guess you did it, and from what I can gather, you had your fair share of road trips! Good luck on your next adventure, and keep us posted!

    Regards,
    Kurt Bukowski

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  13. Great idea for a website! We just bought our second RV. The first was only 20' and had only the cabover bed. We got tired of climbing the ladder in the middle of the night. Now we have a Winnebago Minnie 24'. We just got it and I'm having doubts, even though it's nice and solide (and used). The corner bed is so hard to make and the exposed vanity sink gives me no privacy (well, I can draw the curtain but that's kind of ineffectual). The sink is not with the toilet or showedr, so that's an inconvenience (moving your stuff around). But my husband thinks it's great. It does drive well and I know it will be much easier to manouver when we do, like you, part-time full-timing in a couple of years. Do you have any advice? Is there a secret to making up a corner bed and keeping it looking neat all day (after all, it's practically in the kitchen)? Any tricks to insure privacy especially if we bring company with us? We have a cabover bed and also dinette that turns into a bed. The quality of this RV is fine, though. Any thoughts??? Lin

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  14. I found you through the A to Z challenge. This post was so informative! Now I have a new life goal: working from the road!

    -Katie at AdventuringAtHome

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